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Mana is a word in several Austronesian languages which has many meanings. The concept is especially important in Polynesian cultures, and is a major part of contemporary Pacific Islander culture. The term has also entered the Western academy, where scholars of anthropology and comparative religion have written about it extensively. Finally, modern fantasy fiction, computer and role-playing games have adopted mana as a term for magic points, an expendable (and most often rechargeable) resource out of which magic users form their magical spells.
By coincidence, in the unrelated Uralic languages, such as Finnish, Enets and Mari, mana- means "to say", or in Finnish, "to curse", "to exorcise" or "to magically invoke", from the Proto-Uralic root *mënᴈ- "to say". In Finnish, mana by itself is a poetic word for death, and manala is a synonym for Tuonela, the land of the dead.
The word mana occurs in at least two-dozen Pacific languages, and can be traced back to Proto-Oceanic, the precursor to many contemporary Pacific languages. The linguist Robert Blust has pointed out that 'mana' means 'thunder, storm, or wind' in some languages, and has hypothesized that the term originally meant "powerful forces of nature such as thunder and storm winds that were conceived as the expression of an unseen supernatural agency. As Oceanic-speaking peoples spread eastward, the notion of an unseen supernatural agency became detached from the physical forces of nature that had inspired it and assumed a life of its own":404.
The academic study of mana
Western academics in fields such as anthropology, linguistics, and comparative religion have studied the concept of mana for over a hundred years, and it has played an important role in some of the most important theories of human culture. Robert Codrington was the first major Western scholar to describe the concept of mana. A missionary, Codrington traveled widely in Melanesia and published several studies of the language and culture of the inhabitants there. His 1891 book The Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folk-Lore contains the first sustained description of mana, which Codrington defines as "a force altogether distinct from physical power, which acts in all kinds of ways for good and evil, and which it is of the greatest advantage to possess or control":118.
During this period, many scholars subscribed to a theory of cultural evolutionism which held that all societies evolved from simple to advanced, and that indigenous people were historical fossils of unevolved societies. Mana soon figured into this theory, and the anthropologist R.R. Marrett argued that belief in mana constituted the earliest form of human religious life. However, this simplistic form of cultural evolutionism is no longer accepted by scholars, and Marrett's position is considered incorrect. Marrett assumed all cultures have a concept similar to mana, but in fact they do not. As Ian Hogbin writes, "mana is by no means universal and, consequently, to adopt it as a basis on which to build up a general theory of primitive religion is not only erroneous but indeed fallacious":274.
In the early twentieth century scholars also attempted to see mana as universal concept, found in all human cultures, which expressed a fundamental human awareness of a sacred life-energy. Marcel Mauss, for instance, made this argument in his 1904 essay "Outline of a General Theory of Magic". Mauss drew on the writings of Codrington and others to paint a picture of mana as "power, par excellence, the genuine effectiveness of things which corroborates their practical actions without annihilating them":111. Mauss then went on to demonstrate the similarities of mana to concepts found in other parts of the world such as orenda (Iriquois) and manitou (Ojibway). He was convinced of the "universality of the institution":116 and argued that "a concept, encompassing the idea of magical power, was once found everywhere":117.
Mauss and his collaborator Henri Hubert were criticized for this position when the book first appeared. "No one questioned the existence of the notion of mana," writes Mauss's biographer Marcel Fournier, "but Hubert and Mauss were criticized for giving it a universal dimension":138. Criticism of the idea of mana as a universal archetype of life-energy continued to mount. Mircea Eliade has pointed out that the idea of mana is not universal, in places where people do believe in it they do not believe that everyone has it, and "even among the varying formulae (mana, wakan, orenda, etc.) there are, if not glaring differences, certainly nuances not sufficiently observed in the early studies":22. He writes, "with regard to these theories founded upon the primordial and universal character of mana, we must say without delay that they have been invalidated by later research":127. In sum, this idea is now discredited in academic circles.
In Polynesian culture
In Polynesian culture, mana is a spiritual quality considered to have supernatural origin—a sacred impersonal force existing in the universe. Therefore to have mana is to have influence and authority, and efficacy—the power to perform in a given situation. This essential quality of mana is not limited to persons—peoples, governments, places and inanimate objects can possess mana. There are two ways to obtain mana: through birth and through warfare. People or objects that possess mana are accorded respect because their possession of mana gives them authority, power, and prestige. The word’s meaning is complex because mana is a basic foundation of the Polynesian worldview.
In Hawaiian culture
In Hawaiian culture, Mana is a form of a spiritual energy and also healing power which can exist in places, objects and persons. It is the Hawaiian belief that there is a chance to gain mana and lose mana in everything that you do. It is also the Hawaiian belief that mana is an external as well as an internal thing. Certain sites in the Hawaiian Islands are believed to possess strong mana. For example, the top rim of the Haleakala volcano on the island of Maui is believed to be a location of strong mana.
Hawaiian ancestors also believed that the entire island of Moloka‘i possesses strong mana, as compared to the neighboring islands. Many ancient battles among the Hawaiians, prior to the unification by King Kamehameha I, were fought over possession of Moloka‘i Island, partly for this reason (and possession of the numerous ancient fish ponds that existed along the southern shore prior to the late-19th century).
In people, mana is often possessed or gained through pono (balance) actions, reflecting the balance that exists in the world and humanity's responsibility toward maintaining that balance.
In traditional Hawaii, there were always two paths to mana. A person could gain mana through sexual means or through violence. The Hawaiian way of thinking is that nature has a dualistic relationship and that everything in the world has a counterpart. Over time, a delicate balance between the Gods Ku and Lono were formed, and through them are the two paths to mana. Hawaiians often refer to this as "imihaku", or the search of mana or the search of a source. Ku, being the Hawaiian God of war and politics, offers mana through violence and this is how Kamehameha the Great gained his mana. Lono is the Hawaiian God of peace and fertility, and offers mana through sexual relationships. If a commoner was able to sleep with an Alii Nui Wahine, then he gains the mana of that chief. Mana in Hawaiian culture is a popular topic of everyday discourse. It is not to be mistaken, however, for the same mana term used in the Huna religion, which is primarily practiced by non-Hawaiians and is often considered by ethnic Hawaiians to be an exploitation of Hawaiian ancestral beliefs.
For a Mo'i (supreme ruler) to fail on either path to mana was to prove himself out of the state of pono (righteousness). When a pono Mo'i was devoted to the Akua and the Aina, the whole society prospered. When disaster struck, these were signs that the Mo'i had ceased to be religious and in turn would be killed and replaced by another Alii Nui (high ranking chief). Alii Nui had a great passion for war because it was a great avenue to mana. Those victorious in war sacrificed the defeated upon an altar for Ku, thereby collecting that person's mana. In modern society, certain behavioral patterns are still repeated today. However, the path of Ku has eluded us.
Apart from the dualistic paths to mana, there was also another path to mana often practiced by the high ranking chiefs and especially the Mo'i. This practice is called a Ni'aupi'o relationship. To Hawaiians, the offspring of a brother sister mating was an Akua (God). If one was truly the Mo'i, he should seek out a Ni'aupi'o relationship (Ex: Kauikeaouli and Nāhiʻenaʻena). It is the Hawaiian way of thinking that the only way to ensure divinity and the protection of the family's mana is through an incestual mating. Uncle-niece and Aunt-nephew pairings were also desirable for the bridge in the generation gap.
In New Zealand culture
In Māori usage
In Māori, a tribe that has mana whenua must have demonstrated their authority over a piece of land or territory.
In the Māori culture, there are two essential aspects to a person's mana: mana tangata, authority derived from whakapapa connections, and mana huaanga, defined as "authority derived from having a wealth of resources to gift to others to bind them into reciprocal obligations".
The indigenous word reflects a non-Western view of reality, complicating translation. To quote the New Zealand Ministry of Justice:
Mana and tapu are concepts which have both been attributed single-worded definitions by contemporary writers. As concepts, especially Maori concepts they can not easily be translated into a single English definition. Both mana and tapu take on a whole range of related meanings depending on their association and the context in which they are being used.
In general usage
In contemporary New Zealand English, the word "mana", taken from the Māori, refers to a person or organisation of people of great personal prestige and character. Sir Edmund Hillary is considered to have great mana both because of his accomplishments and of how he gave his life to service. Perceived egotism can diminish mana because New Zealand culture tends to shun personal display (see Tall poppy syndrome). A New Zealander might say, "Sir Ed has a lot of mana" even though he is deceased. Also, a New Zealander might say, "Sir Ed brought a lot of mana to the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuit Centre" (OPC) meaning that it has mana because of its association with a man of great mana. However, if the OPC did something that was not respected by New Zealanders, it could lose mana.
In Melanesian culture
Melanesian mana is thought to be a sacred impersonal force existing in the universe. Mana can be in people, animals, plants and objects. Similar to the idea of efficacy, or luck, the Melanesians thought all success traced back to mana. Magic is a typical way to acquire or manipulate this luck.
Objects that have mana can change a person’s luck. Examples of such objects are charms or amulets. For instance if a prosperous hunter gave a charm that had mana to another person the prosperous hunter’s luck would go with it.
Games and fiction
Fantasy writer Larry Niven in his 1969 short story Not Long Before the End described mana as a natural resource which is used or channeled by wizards to cast magic spells. He expanded on this idea in other works, notably his 1978 novella The Magic Goes Away. Mana is a limited resource in Niven's work, a fact which eventually will lead to the end of all magic in his antediluvian fantasy setting when all mana is depleted. Many subsequent fantasy settings (role-playing games in particular) have followed Niven in his use of mana. Terry Pratchett in his Discworld series uses the word mana to describe the force of magic - noted several times in the first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic. The Ben 10 franchise describes mana as a form of energy that exists in all living things.
In computer and role-playing games which feature magic, a common game mechanic is a limited pool of mana which is gradually depleted as the character casts spells. In World of Warcraft, all magic-using characters employ mana, which can be recharged using water. Namco's Tales of Symphonia explores two separated yet connected worlds whose fates hinge on the very limited quantities of mana left over by a devastating war.
In the card game Magic: The Gathering, mana is the consumable mystical resource used to cast spells, summon creatures, and otherwise perform magic. It comes in five colors, each associated with a different philosophical outlook and type of land, as well as a neutral colorless form.
- Polynesian Lexicon Project Online
- Blust, Robert (2007). "Proto-Oceanic *mana Revisited". Oceanic Linguistics 36 (2): 404–422. doi:10.1353/ol.2008.0005.
- Codrington, Robert Henry (1891). The Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folk-Lore. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Marrett, R.R. (1909). The Threshold of Religion. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.
- Hogbin, Ian (1936). "Mana". Oceania 6: 241–274.
- Mauss, Marcel (1972). A General Theory of Magic. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
- Fournier, Marcel (2006). Marcel Mauss: A Biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Eliade, Mircea (1958). Patterns in Comparative Religion. New York: Sheed & Ward.
- Eliade, Mircea (1967). Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
- Tracie Losch, Hawaii: Center of the Pacific (Hawaii: Copley Custom Textbooks, 2008), 68.
- Tracie Losch, Hawaii: Center of the Pacific (Hawaii: Copley Custom Textbooks, 2008), 70.
- Tracie Losch, Hawaii: Center of the Pacific (Hawaii: Copley Custom Textbooks, 2008), 65.
- Maori Law Review, June 1999
- The Ngai Tahu Sea Fisheries Report 1992. Ch. 04 Ngai Tahu Sea Fisheries Treaty Rights at 1840.
- 'A Glimpse into the Maori World. Mana and Tapu
- Kiwi (NZ) to English Dictionary
- "The History of Mana: How an Austronesian Concept Became a Video Game Mechanic", June 17, 2014, Alex Golub, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
- Wizards of the Coast. The Five Colors
- Codrington, Robert Henry. 1891. The Melanesians. Relevant excerpt.
- Keesing, Roger. 1984. Rethinking mana. Journal of Anthropological Research 40:137-156.
- Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1950. Introduction à l'œuvre de Marcel Mauss.
- Lévi-Strauss, Claude; Baker, Felicity (translator). 1987. Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. ISBN 0-415-15158-9.
- Mauss, Marcel. 1924. Essai sur le don.
- Mondragón, Carlos (June 2004). "Of Winds, Worms and Mana: The Traditional Calendar of the Torres Islands, Vanuatu". Oceania 74 (4): 289–308. JSTOR 40332069.